Mobile Monday: HTC Sensation XE/XL Head To Head

It's not too often that a phone vendor launches two handsets under the same branding but with wildly different physical characteristics. So when the HTC Sensation XE and XL landed in the Giz Au offices, we split reviewing duties; Elly took on the larger Sensation XL and Alex took the smaller Sensation XE.

HTC Sensation XL

HTC Sensation XL Specs 132.5mm x 70.7mm x 9.9mm 162.5 g with battery 4.7-inch 480×800 S-LCD touchscreen 1.5GHz processor Android 2.3.5 Gingerbread HTC Sense 3.5 768MB RAM 16GB ROM 8MP camera with autofocus, dual LED flash 720p HD video recording 1600mAh battery

What We Liked

The Sensation XL represents a few firsts for HTC: it's their first white non-QWERTY phone, the screen is their biggest yet at 4.7 inches, and it comes with a funky headset that retails separately for $300. But don't be fooled into thinking that it's just what's on the outside that differentiates the Sensation XL from the Sensation XE.

The Sensation XL's build quality is right up there with what we've come to expect from HTC. In the looks deparment, it's a bit simplistic compared to, say, the HTC EVO 3D, but the fact that it's white makes up for this. The white colour with a splash of red on the back just feels right for this phone.

The screen is big, gorgeous and sharp despite having a relatively crap resolution of just 400x800 (compared to the 960x540 on the Sensation XE's smaller screen). If you have small hands, it may feel awkward to use with just one hand, but at the same time I get depressed at the idea of going back to a smaller screen. Seriously, this thing is like a mini tablet and you'll want to use it like one. Also, there's no microSD card expansion on the Sensation XL, but it does come with 16GB of internal storage.

HTC is giving customers a customised Beats Audio headset in the box with every Sensation XL. You can buy these separately at places like JB Hi-Fi for $300, and while I don't think it's worth that much, it's different and an essential part of the Sensation XL experience. What this headset will give you that others won't is the ability to optimise audio output at the touch of an onscreen button. You can enable Beats Audio via the notifications dropdown menu, and the music you're playing instantly produces a deeper bass and less noisy treble. The difference is slight, but a difference there is. Our review unit came with the the retail-only headphones, but the ones that ship with the headset include the microphone.

The camera on the XL is fair but not spectacular; we took photos with the XL and XE of the same subjects; both came out acceptably, but neither was particularly punchy, and both cameras had a tendency for washed out colours.

What We Didn't Like

Despite being the bigger phone and costing an extra $5 per month, the Sensation XL has a smaller 1600mAh battery and only a single-core 1.5GHz processor to power Android 2.3.5 (Gingerbread) and HTC Sense 3.5, the latter of which also brings sync for Mac. Once you get the software going, it works superbly, but setting it up is a pain in the arse. Connecting the Sensation XL to my iMac out of the box resulted in an error, and a Google search resulted in me having to download the HTC Sync for Mac software from XDA Developers — the software was nowhere to be found on the phone itself.

Unsurprisingly, like with the Rhyme, the Sensation XL froze up on me and became unresponsive at times. HTC Sense is a memory hog and the whole system runs on a single-core 1.5GHz processor, unlike the Sensation XE. Most times, though, the phone runs as smooth as butter and the fact that it lacks that extra core doesn't seem to impact too much on its efficiency.

Battery life is just average. I can squeeze a day out of it, but when you're listening to music and doing all the things that you'll want to do on a big 4.7-inch screen, 1600mAh sometimes isn't going to be enough.

Like the Rhyme, neither of the Sensation XE nor Sensation XL have scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass, which makes us wonder if HTC have decided to cull it from its future lineup altogether.

I'm also taking issue with the lack of consistency in HTC Sense's design. The Rhyme and the Sensation XL both have the latest version of Sense, but the look is wildly different to each other. Even between the Sensation XL and the Sensation XE, the main apps/phone/personalize menu looks different from each other. The Sensation XE has an older version of Sense, but the point is that HTC should just choose one look that works well universally and stick to it for each version of Sense. If they want to change the look for Sense 4.0, fine, but make all the phones using that version of Sense look and behave the same way.

The way I see it, choosing between either of these phones basically comes down to how much you want the 4.7-inch screen and Beats Audio headset. If you don't care so much about either of these things, the Sensation XE is a better buy and is one of the fastest phones you can currently get.

HTC Sensation XE

HTC Sensation XE Specs 126.1mm x 65.4mm x 11.3mm 151g with battery 4.3-inch 960x540 S-LCD touchscreen 1.5GHz dual-core processor Android 2.3.4 Gingerbread 768MB RAM 4GB ROM (1GB available) microSD up to 32GB 8MP camera with autofocus, dual LED flash 1080p HD video recording 1730mAh battery

What We Liked

HTC's original Sensation was a very solid phone, and with the exception of adding Beats branding — more on that in a minute — HTC's really only tinkered around the edges. The processor's been bumped up to a 1.5GHz dual core model. The battery's been slightly supercharged up to 1730mAh. They're small changes to what was already a solid product. Speaking of which, the Sensation XE is a solidly built phone; where I tend to find the Galaxy S II and even the kevlar-backed RAZR to feel a bit flimsy — they're undeniably tough phones, but they don't feel like it — the Sensation XE feels like a solid lump of phone. That's a personal choice thing; some users might think of the XE as a bit of a fat brick.

The headphones are good. Normally, headphones supplied with a smartphone wouldn't even rate a mention; they're almost always bland at best. The supplied Ur-Beat Beats By Dre headphones definitely stand out — they're bright red for a start — and they do offer superior (if a little bass-heavy) performance over the generic units you usually get with a phone. But headphones alone aren't a reason to buy a phone.

HTC's specifications for the XE list it as having a minor battery upgrade. Predictably, with heavy use I could flatten it in a day, but that did take a little work on my behalf. The battery is removable, although taking the entire back off does reveal a lot of the inner electronics. That could be tricky in a public place, but moreover, I kept getting tempted to leave the back off, just because of all that sexy naked circuitry. Maybe that's just me.

The The camera on the XE is, like the XL, fair but not great; there's not that much difference between the cameras for most shots, and while it's passable, it's not something you'd replace a point and shoot camera with.

What We Didn't Like

In some ways it's a perceptual thing, but the weird versioning between the XL and XE rankles me; it's genuinely not clear — and HTC wasn't able to supply a sensible answer — as to why two phones released at the same time have differing versions of both Sense and Android itself. That's more likely to be an annoyance point for power users who like being totally up to date.

Sense remains something of a taste test product. There's no doubt that when it first debuted it gave Android a slick layer that it otherwise largely lacked, and HTC's continued to refine around that premise. At the same time though, there are times when the Sensation XE got laggy, and it seemed to be when I was using Sense-specific features. This also draws in the other thing I wasn't that impressed with on the XE, and that's the fact that it doesn't entirely feel like it's pushing the dual core processor in any significant way. It's not a truly slow or unresponsive phone for the most part, but it does make it clear that the software package on a smartphone matters a whole lot more than the underlying hardware; as we move into the era of quad-core smartphone processors that'll become even more important.

Whether it's worth opting for the XE over the XL will largely depend, I think, on two factors. One of those is clearly something that HTC sees as a major selling point — the bundling of Beats headphones with the phones — but I'd say that should be minor. They're good headphones, but headphones break over time, or get lost. That'll happen eventually, and you'd still have the phone there to use.

The other is the size issue. Both phones are exclusive to Vodafone. The Sensation XE is available for $0 on the $59 Vodafone cap, while the Sensation XL is $5 per month on the $59 Vodafone cap. As such, the contracts that Vodafone's offering for the XE and XL don't really differ that much. If you can afford the contract for the XE, the odds are that you'll be able to afford the contract for the XL. If you're of the opinion that bigger is always better, the XL would seem to be the phone to buy.

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